30.7.08

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"Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. [...] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. [...] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture." - Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy


I started today thinking about fiction published on the internet - fan fiction, original fiction, whatever - after a brief conversation on the subject with some friends the other night. I went to Marshall McLuhan to stir up some thoughts on the subject and wound up completely sidetracked and with a new train of thought. Now I'm not really sure what I want to discuss. Stick with me if you can. This'll be bumpy. Also, it is probably helpful to at least check out the Wikipedia page on Marshall McLuhan before reading this if you're not familiar with him because I want to draw on a couple of terms and tools that he developed.

First, I want to look at a pedagogical tool McLuhan developed intended to focus attention on the four types of effects (as defined by McLuhan, of course) a medium has on society [image below]. Wikipedia, offering a theoretical tetrad with radio as the medium (McLuhan defines medium as "any extension of ourselves" i.e. a hammer extends our arm), gives this example of the effects:

"1.) Enhancement (What the medium amplifies or intensifies) - Radio amplifies news and music via sound.

2.) Obsolescence (What the medium drives out of prominence) - Radio reduces the importance of print and the visual.

3.) Retrieval (What the medium recovers which was previously lost) - Radio returns the spoken word to the forefront.

4.) Reversal (What the medium does when pushed to the limits) - Acoustic radio flips into audio-visual TV."

McLuhan further categorizes these four effects into groups called "Ground" and "Figure." Again, refer to the Wikipedia page for a better discussion of these terms, but basically "Figure" refers to how a medium interacts or operates in its context. That context is "Ground." Figure = medium; Ground = context, to simplify. In the tetrad, Enhancements and Retrievals are Figure qualities; Reversals and Obsolescences are Ground qualities.

Initially, I wanted to write about fiction on the internet as a medium and use the tetrad to interrogate the medium - its Ground and Figure qualities, cultural effects, and so on. But I realized "Fiction on the internet" is probably not a medium; the World Wide Web is a medium (probably a more accurate term than saying "internet"). I'd gotten close to writing on the subject, though, because putting "Fiction on the internet" in the middle of the tetrad seemed to fit - I could imagine writing about the enhancements and reversals triggered by fiction on the internet. But it was unsettling, and I feared flat out wrong, to consider "Fiction on the internet" a medium.

So I backed off. Instead I tried to put the World Wide Web in the middle of that tetrad. What does the World Wide Web enhance? Radio enhances "news and music via sound." Well, the internet does that, too. Does the World Wide Web enhance moving images, like television? Yes. Does it also drive TV and radio from prominence (Obsolescence)? Yes, it does that.

This is a simple path to follow; when it comes to Enhancement (which I would not consider synonymous, here, with "betterment") and Obsolescence, I could see making a case that the World Wide Web enhances all information based media while simultaneously making all information based media obsolete.


I am careful to distinguish by saying "information based media" because McLuhan's definition of media that I'm working with - "any extension of ourselves" - applies to hammers and bicycles as well as newspapers and videogame consoles and the web doesn't cover the territory of the hammer. Yet. But from here on out, I'll just say "media" for the sake of brevity, but I'm addressing information based media. (Furthermore, I will admit that I am unsatisfied with the term "information based media" - if you've got a better one, I'm all ears)

The World Wide Web has a chameleon-like nature - it is able to imitate the characteristics of other media almost exactly. In so doing, it destroys the media it consumes. Newspapers, music, television, radio - all are available online and all are available for free, too, if you're clever enough (and you don't need to be that clever). Those four mediums are all about to go belly up and are happy enough to blame the Web for many of their problems.

What the Web really does away with is center. Television exists to serve one purpose: to project sound and images by way of a screen. When you watch television, you are participating with the medium in the only way you can. But when you watch The Office on Hulu.com, are you watching television? No, not really, you're watching a television show broadcast via the World Wide Web.

What is the original content of the internet? Newspapers, magazines, movies... the World Wide Web enhances this media, makes its original source obsolete, but can the World Wide Web become a newspaper? Or only imitate it?

McLuhan warns us that, "it is only too typical that the 'content' of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium." I think this is especially true of the Web because the content is illusory; it is a mirage. The content of the Web does not exist.

What is the original content of the World Wide Web? The videos, writing, music, news, talk, that can all be found on the Web are conveyed by an imitation of the media that created them. The Web itself is incapable of creating content. Perhaps the quintessential Web agent is the search engine. But how does Google function? I input data and then Google has algorithms, calculations, procedures which take the data I input and spit back out results. This is the domain of the computer: "A machine that manipulates data according to a list of instructions." The World Wide Web imitates a computer. Of course one does not exist without the other, but I think even here the World Wide Web plays the chameleon and puts on the costume of a computer.

What about blogs? Again, the web imitates other media - a personal journal, diary, opinion letter, editorial. These things are offered as a unique blend via blogs on the Web, but, still, the Web just allows you to imitate a diary and editorial simultaneously, if you wish, but the form is still ripped off from something pre-existing.

What I’m trying to get at is the wraith-like quality media assumes on the Web; the New York Times on the Web is an apparition of a newspaper as the real thing, somewhere behind it, approaches death.

I guess the question at this point would be to return to that tetrad and say, “Ok, so the Web might kill off TV, radio, and print as they exist independent from the Web, now. So what happens in the ‘Reversal’ phase, when the internet is pushed to its limits? Into what does it flip?”
One answer is the internet will become the media it kills off. All that “illusory” content suddenly becomes solid because there is no alternative; the NY Times will only publish electronically. But I don’t think this is the case. I don’t think once these other forms die off and exist exclusively (or almost exclusively) on the Web that it will somehow give an article on the Web the flesh it lacks now.

McLuhan thought the result would be a “global village,” that is a reaction against the fragmentary style of life caused by print culture. Instead of breaking away into little cliques based on language, we’ll be one throbbing, frightened mass desperate for the iron rule of one person that makes us forget how terrifying it is to be in close contact with every other person on earth by being even more terrifying him/herself:

“Is it not obvious that there are always enough moral problems without also taking a moral stand on technological grounds? [...] Print is the extreme phase of alphabet culture that detribalizes or decollectivizes man in the first instance. Print raises the visual features of alphabet to highest intensity of definition. Thus print carries the individuating power of the phonetic alphabet much further than manuscript culture could ever do. Print is the technology of individualism. If men decided to modify this visual technology by an electric technology, individualism would also be modified. To raise a moral complaint about this is like cussing a buzz-saw for lopping off fingers. "But", someone says, "we didn't know it would happen." Yet even witlessness is not a moral issue. It is a problem, but not a moral problem; and it would be nice to clear away some of the moral fogs that surround our technologies. It would be good for morality.”

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